Rags. Rags? Yes rags.
This is the conversation I had with the sewage treatment plant recently when I asked them what caused the biggest issue with blockages at the plants. I was continuing my research into ‘flushable’ products.
That doesn’t make any sense at all. Why would people be flushing rags? My local water treatment plant run by Queensland Urban Utilities invited me for a private tour of a facility so I could see for myself. Turns out they weren’t rags…
The workers refer to them as rags (or rag balls if there is a collection of them). They are not rags in the traditional sense, they are actually a number of different rag-like items including baby wipes, makeup remover wipes, wet wipes, cloth nappy liners, sanitary pads etc. Some of these things are labeled and indeed marketed as flushable. Why? So consumers feel better about using them.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. Just because something CAN be flushed does not mean it should be flushed. After talking to the staff at the sewage treatment plant, it turns out LOTS of inappropriate items make their way to the plant. I guess the other thing to note is that the treatment plants have water coming in from multiple sources, not just toilets. They also collect waste water from kitchens (sink and dishwasher), bathrooms (toilet, shower, sink) and laundries (sink and washing machine).
The initial screening. You can see that these rag-like items account for most of the material.
One of the first processes at the plant is the screening of incoming waste. This is a relatively simple system of large screens or filters to catch solids and allow liquids to pass through for further treatment. As more solid material accumulates on the screens, the processing becomes less efficient. The screens need regular attention to remove solid materials. The process is mostly automated, however, certain items cause blockages and are problematic for machinery. RAGS. The rag-like items act as a catcher for other solid materials and can tangle in machinery. The solid material includes many items that were never intended for flushing such as condoms, tampon wrappers, sanitary pad wrappers, ear buds, etc). Interestingly, regulations mean all items removed from the screens must be washed before they are taken to landfill. This adds to the inefficiency and expense of treating sewage. This initial screening process is said to remove about 20% of solid matter.
Flushing items other than human waste and toilet paper can cause the following issues:
• Blocked household plumbing. Rag-like items snag and cause other items to cling to them compounding blockages.
• Blockages in the sewerage network can lead to sewage overflows.
• Causes costly blockages at the treatment plant (machinery fatigue, man hours).
• Reduces treatment efficiency.
What about regulations?
You might be wondering if there are any regulations around this issue. There are.
This is an excerpt from the Queensland Water Supply (Safety and Reliability) Act 2008. It is considered current. The purpose of the Act is to provide for the safety and reliability of water supply.
Schedule 1 Prohibited substances
schedule 3, def prohibited substance
1. A solid or viscous substance in a quantity, or of a size, that can obstruct sewerage, or interfere with the operation of sewerage.
Examples of solids or viscous substances that are prohibited substances if of a size or in the quantity mentioned in item 1—
• ash, cinders, sand, mud, straw and shavings
• metal, glass and plastics
• paper and plastic dishes, cups and milk containers whether whole or ground by garbage grinders
• rags, feathers, tar and wood
• whole blood, paunch manure, hair and entrails
• oil and grease
• cement laden waste water, including, wash down from exposed aggregate concrete surfaces
What can be done?
Many people, even after seeing the evidence and reading this article, will continue to flush items marketed as flushable. Shops will continue to sell the products knowing that consumers intend to flush them and manufacturers will continue to market them as flushable. It is a battle to challenge hundreds of manufacturers and seek cooperation with more accurate labelling. There are no specific guidelines that stipulate conditions for labelling something as flushable.
When I pushed the issue with one of the manufacturers and I pointed out that biodegradable and flushable were not the same thing they politely responded with “Thanks again for your query. We are happy with our product and testing at this time, but will certainly keep your information in mind for future consideration.”
If you contact a manufacturer and they do not reply or cannot provide details of how long their item takes to degrade, that should tell you something. If their item takes longer than a couple of hours to degrade that is a problem. And don’t be comforted that it will eventually break down in landfill because modern engineered landfill environments are not conducive to degradation. Meaning nothing breaks down in them either. That’s another story.
Many people trust that there is some system in place to deal with whatever they put into the sewerage network. Out of sight, out of mind.
- Only flush wee, poo and toilet paper. Everything else should be added to general waste or composted as appropriate.
- Use a sink strainer to catch small items and especially hair.
- Use the half flush function on the toilet.
- If it’s yellow, let it mellow.
- Consider a reusable option to single use items such as baby wipes, nappy liners, make up remover products and sanitary products (yes, they do exist).
The products end up in landfill AFTER going for a journey through the pipes. It makes sense to put them directly in the bin.
The biggest problem items include:
• Rag like items: Baby wipes, wet wipes, make up remover products, sanitary pads, nappy liners,
• Fruit stickers
• Cotton balls
• Cotton buds
• Coffee grounds
• Cooking fats
The Queensland Urban Utilities Think at the Sink campaign provides householders with guidance on helping to look after the sewerage network. It has a clear message that gets to the point.
‘Flush only human waste and toilet paper down the toilet.’
I’d love to do an experiment where a number of items are barcoded and tracked to see how long they take to reach a plant. This would also reveal the biggest offenders. All my research points to baby wipes as the biggest rag-like issue. Obviously the results would vary given proximity, peak usage times and rainfall contributions. It would still be a cool experiment to do.
Flushable cloth nappy liners
I want to make a specific mention of flushable cloth nappy liners. They are used by parents who choose cloth nappies, many of whom do so for environmental reasons. A cloth nappy liner is a disposable piece of fabric that is placed inside a cloth nappy. It is designed to make poo clean up easier. Flush the poo and the liner. I’ve seen many types of these liners, I’ve even used them. But I never trusted that they could be flushed. When I attended my first cloth nappy workshop and purchased my first cloth nappies, I was given some reusable liners as a freebie. I thank the retailer for that. I ended up buying more and then made my own fabric reusable and washable liners. I’ve been thinking about the flushability issue for nearly three years
I have personally contacted a number of manufacturers that sell flushable liners/wipes. I asked a series of questions so that I could learn more about their product. Some businesses completely ignored me. Some wanted to know why I was asking questions and a couple where helpful and supplied some information in response. Many claim theirs are flushable but warn that competitors items are not.
One manufacturer gave me a CSIRO test report. The report stated that the product was tested using a soil burial method. It was buried in potting mix and chicken manure. The report indicates that after 28 days the item had degraded. Now this is interesting. This company uses that evidence to market their product as biodegradable. Which is actually true. The problem is that manufacturers are then additionally claiming their items are therefore flushable. Technically this is also true. But, let me just say that biodegradable and flushable are not the same thing. The big question then becomes. How long does it take for these items to reach the plant? Maybe, just maybe, they have enough time to degrade before they reach the plant?
It takes less than a day for flushed items to reach the plant. In some instances it can take as little as 6 hours. If there are heavy rains, which act to accelerate the flow to the plant, it can take just a couple of hours. There is no way that these types of products have sufficient time to degrade before they reach the plant. The entire water treatment process, from when waste arrives at the plant to when it leaves the plant and is returned to waterways, is a maximum of 20 days.
I am a big cloth nappy advocate. Some cloth nappy retailers are adamant that using flushable liners has been a deciding factor in customers choosing cloth nappies instead of traditional disposable nappies. This can’t be overlooked. I certainly agree that environmentally it is better for a single liner to be disposed of rather than a whole disposable nappy. The use of a ‘flushable’ liner is not the real issue. The issue is consumers flushing them. If the term ‘flushable’ was removed from packaging and instructions – I’d be happy. Perhaps they could just be pitched as ‘disposable liners’ not ‘flushable liners’. Like the manufacturers that are making the assumption that if their product is biodegradable it is therefore flushable, consumers make the same assumption. Even if there was some regulation around the use of the term flushable and manufacturers were forced to remove it from packaging, they would still market them as biodegradable and they would still be flushed. An apple is biodegradable, doesn’t mean we should flush it. The items make a costly round trip to landfill. How about we just put them directly in the bin instead of flushing?
My aim here is to inform consumers. If a product is marketed as flushable, most consumers would assume it degrades once flushed. I’m here to tell you – that does not happen. Ultimately it is up to the consumer to decide what they flush. By all means, go ahead and use ‘flushable’ items. But either put them in your compost bin or regular outgoing waste. I urge you to consider reusable options to replace single use items wherever possible. This will reduce resource use in many ways including manufacturing, importing, distributing, retailing and disposal of the product.
In summary, I can’t support the recommendation to flush any products marketed as flushable or biodegradable until there is a lot more evidence around the subject. They simply do not have time to disintegrate, they cause havoc in the screening processes and impact on efficiency and therefore cost. Consumers are paying for it financially and environmentally.
Thank you to Tennille Graham of Apikali. Who provided some great insight into various aspects of this journey.
Queensland Urban Utilities have provided answers to my questions and of course, arranged the private tour. They are also keen to ensure householders are informed and will continue to explore effective communication on these issues. Particular thanks go to Nathan, Sally and Damon.
• Unity Water have a great video that summarises the issues of flushing inappropriate items. Love your loo.
Other articles by Eco Parents Australia
• Bye bye toilet paper – How I converted from using toilet paper to cloth wipes.
About the author
Brooke Summerville writes for Eco Parents Australia. Her website, blog and social media pages allow her to share her own eco challenges and triumphs, plus tips, useful links, articles and eco product reviews and giveaways. She has created a supportive community of like-minded followers. Brooke says ” I have always been eco-minded, but having children seem to amplify the importance of living gently”.